18 July 2016

Fifty shades of Theresa May’s grey


Theresa May understands the value of an eye-catching flourish. As she emerged from the BMW in the Buckingham Palace courtyard last Wednesday afternoon, she rose slowly from the back seat, her shoulders draped in a dark and stately blue. For a moment you might have been excused for breathing a sigh of sartorial relief that there would be no strange alien embroidery nor plunging necklines, no gothic crepe nor lettuce hem. She appeared to be wearing a plain but clean-cut suit until, of course, the moment you saw that bright sash of yellow around the lower half of the jacket. It was glaring and bold and just a little bit questionable; the physical embodiment of a breaking news ticker or a semaphore from a ship signalling plague or leaking bilge. It was also a moment characteristic of the woman who first captured our attention with her jungle cat heels all those years ago.

The deliberate fashion faux pas has become something of a stock-in-trade for May, though it’s rare that they’re given the attention they properly deserve. These flourishes might well be canards that fool you into thinking they betray a shallowness of character. They are the bejewelled toecaps which distract the eye from where the eye should really be lingering. By punctuating her greyness with flashes of the brilliant, May can wear the dourest of suits knowing that the media will obsess over her shoes. This isn’t the manipulation of news as much as it’s the manipulation of human psychology.

In nature, this trick is termed ‘aggressive mimicry’ of which there are many examples in the animal kingdom. The humpback anglerfish has a long filament terminating in a bead of flesh that imitates bait as it dangles in front of the mouth ridged with sharp teeth. There there’s the Central American cichlid that feigns death to lure smaller fish into its kill zone. The spider-eating ‘assassin bug’ will pluck a spider’s web to imitate the struggles of a victim but it’s actually the spider that soon becomes lunch. The examples continue right into the our own species and even to this week and day when Pokeman Go players are being lured down quiet rural lanes so they can argue ownership of expensive phones with burly men with knuckles and balaclavas.

In a political sense, false vulnerability is a clever ploy. If we previously had a rather shallow Prime Minister who affected postures of gravity, we now have a serious Prime Minister who affects a degree of triviality that can easily trip the unaware. Consider how May’s second visible act as Prime Minister was to summon Boris Johnson to Downing Street. Was that not an act of aggressive mimicry? You will certainly remember where you were when you first heard that news break. It was the moment a nation and its journalists cracked their dentures on a ‘whatdidtheyjustsay?’ There had been talk, not all of it serious talk, about a possible role for Boris in a May cabinet and conventional wisdom had him topping out around the level of Culture Secretary. Instead, he emerged all round shouldered and humbled as our new Foreign Secretary. It was the kind of appointment that nuclear sub commanders have unopened letters about.

For half a turn of the world there was mockery from every quarter. There could be nothing quite so risible as bungling bow-kneed botched-bungee Boris as Foreign Secretary. Yet an astute few were quietly whispering that Boris’s appointment might not be such a bad idea. In fact, it might well be inspired.

The reasons offered were much like those presented by Sir Christopher Meyer who turned up on Sky News on Thursday. They focussed on character and the improved media punch of the Foreign Office. Both were persuasive but they discounted the role that Boris had already played in what had become a very nuanced but shockingly brutal reshuffle. Boris was the blonde stripe of triviality across a quite dour list of unfamiliar names. His was the big shaggy appointment that had Brexiteers polishing their elbows on wine bars across the city. The appointment of Johnson (along with David Davis) even had Nigel Farage drooling over Twitter.

The appointment of @DavidDavisMP & @LiamFoxMP to Brexit and International Trade roles are inspired choices. I feel more optimistic now.

This might as well have been the moment that Farage took the bait, sensed the death rattle in the water, or felt the vibrations in the web. He did not seem to notice the hard politics of the reshuffle.

It was Johnson and Davis who May placed in the two key roles. Johnson is, at best, a slightly damp Brexiteer who, in all likelihoods, is pro-European and only wanted to manoeuvre the country towards a better deal. In Davis, she has promoted a man with impeccable anti-EU credentials but who is also one of the more free thinking members of the conservative right. Davis is that rare beast: a right winger admired by moderates. Add the new Chancellor into the mix and you have three men who rarely get spittle chinned when discussing Europe. You could not find three men so different to Nigel Farage who, only days earlier, was anticipating Michael Gove, the radical tinkerer who believes he’s brighter man in town; Iain Duncan Smith, ideological Thatcherite who buys compassion by the miserly ounce; and Prime Minister Andrea Leadsom, so bouncy-heeled and motherly. All three could have triggered Article 50 before breakfast on Friday and not broken sweat.

If the May government were a May jacket it would be carefully cuffed and collared in the colours of Euroscepticism but only to distract from the jacket’s lining: soft, demure and very pragmatic. The closest May came to naming a hard Brexiter was Liam Fox but his role faces out to the rest of the world rather than into the heart of the EU problem.

President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said on Thursday that ‘the composition of the new cabinet shows that the focus is less on the future of the country but more about satisfying the internal cohesion of the Tory Party.’ He is right so long as you ignore the evidence. Out of 25 members of the cabinet, there are perhaps 7 who are Brexiteers and, of those, Priti Patel, Natalie Evans and Leadsom have been shoved out to the fringes where their portfolios (Foreign Development, Leader of the Lords, and DEFRA) limit their influence. Chris Grayling might have expected a higher position that Transport given the effort he expended on May’s leadership campaign, yet even he seems to have paid a penalty for his Brexiteering. Wherever you look expecting to find a clear signal about Europe, you instead find signs of calculation and clever positioning, such as when the Prime Minister visited Scotland on Friday and confirmed ‘I won’t trigger Article 50 until we have a UK approach and objectives’. David Davis has since said that this doesn’t amount to a veto for Scotland but it again underlines the working hypothesis that the cabinet is something other than the ‘swivel EU’d loons’ of the hard conservative right.

The cabinet reshuffle instead felt brutal, clever and more political than anything we’ve seen since PR, spin, and message became the norm under Blair. This might be a cabinet set up to extract us from Europe but it does just enough to distract us from the reality that we’re a long way from Brexit and that we have no idea what that extraction will look like. Instead we have Boris, shining like a diamante-tipped heel on kitten-fox shoes. It all seems so trivial and so playful. Until, that is, we feel the crushing weight of the calculation.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.